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August 15, 2008

Clock Strikes Against Cockfights

Yesterday, I gave a talk before the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association and PennAg on farm animals and animal welfare. I then dashed to the airport and flew from Harrisburg to Baton Rouge, La. When I arrived at 9 p.m., cockfighting was legal in the state.

As I watched the Olympics on television and saw two fantastic American girls take the gold and silver medals in the all-around gymnastics competition, the clock struck midnight here and I rejoiced that a law to ban cockfighting had taken effect—on Aug. 15.

The law passed last year, but implementation was delayed until today. It had been guided through the Legislature by the inspired and dogged work of former Sen. Arthur Lentini, former House Agriculture Committee chairman Francis Thompson, and Rep. Harold Ritchie. It was strenuously backed by all of the leading newspapers in the state, including The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, The Advocate in Baton Rouge, and The Times in Shreveport, and beautifully lobbied for by our Louisiana State Director Julia Breaux and also by thousands of HSUS members in the state and by the Louisiana SPCA and other regional animal welfare groups.

Wayne Pacelle at HSUS press conference in Louisiana
© The HSUS
Speaking at today's press conference in Baton Rouge.

I came down here today to appear at a press conference with Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, the president of the Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police, the head of the Louisiana Sheriff's Association, and other law enforcement leaders throughout the state. They stood shoulder to shoulder with me and declared a "zero tolerance" policy for staged animal fights. They said they'd enforce the law vigorously.

Attorney General Caldwell and I announced that The HSUS would provide a $5,000 reward to any individual who provides us or law enforcement with information leading to the arrest and conviction of an animal fighter. A bank of television cameras and reporters recorded the information to spread the word throughout the state to would-be informants.

I had seen this day in my dreams for years. I knew we'd get here, but just wasn't quite sure when. I wanted desperately to see an end to all staged animal fights in Louisiana, which had, as the other states outlawed the practice, become the cockfighting capital of the South. And I desperately wanted all 50 states to have bans on the activity. That is the reality in our nation today.

In 1997, when cockfighting was legal in five states (Arizona, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, and only nominally banned in a large class of other states) and with the federal law against animal fighting having a gaping loophole for legal cockfighting, I told my colleagues at The HSUS that we could not allow this circumstance to persist. Any allowance of cockfighting—no mind perfectly legal in five states, with hundreds of major cockfighting arenas operating and 2.5 million fighting birds in Oklahoma alone—is an embarrassment for our movement and this nation and the source of incalculable animal suffering.

Red rooster in grass
© iStockphoto

We augmented our outstanding staff, bringing on remarkable staffers such as Ann Chynoweth and John Goodwin to focus on the issue, and we declared open war on cockfighting.

In 1998, we worked with the most dedicated animal advocates and qualified and passed ballot initiatives in Arizona and Missouri to ban cockfighting and make it a felony. After fierce resistance from cockfighters and agricultural interests, we then passed a ballot measure in Oklahoma in 2002. That same year, we closed the loophole in the federal animal fighting law that had allowed interstate shipment of fighting birds to legal jurisdictions.

And then last year, the dam burst open on the cockfighters. We worked with Animal Protection of New Mexico and banned cockfighting there. And then we passed the law in Louisiana. We also upgraded the federal law again and made any interstate transport of fighting animals or implements a felony.

And this year, on the Farm Bill, we passed yet another upgrade of the federal law, making it a federal felony to engage in animal fighting if there is any interstate connection and making it a felony to train or possess fighting animals.

I am grateful to Attorney General Caldwell and the leaders of Louisiana's largest law enforcement organizations for joining with The HSUS in this effort to enforce the law. I felt a swelling of pride knowing they are on our side to stop animal cruelty.

We still have work to do in U.S. territories and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, but this is a moment to savor. Dozens of cockfighting arenas now must be shuttered.

In our movement, we face many challenges. But today is a day to celebrate our progress as a movement. All 50 states now ban the practice of staged animal fights, and there is a consensus in our nation that staged animal cruelty is unacceptable. This report from Louisiana tells us that our labors as a movement have been rich and fruitful.

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